A cautionary true story about my favourite river.

On 30 January 1607, around noon, the coasts of the Bristol Channel suffered from unexpectedly high floodings that broke the coastal defences in several places. Low-lying places in Devon, Somerset, Gloucestershire, and South Wales were flooded. The devastation was particularly severe on the Welsh side, extending from Laugharne in Carmarthenshire to above Chepstow in Monmouthshire. Cardiff was the most badly affected town, with the foundations of St Mary’s Church destroyed.

It is estimated that 2,000 or more people were drowned, houses and villages were swept away, an estimated 200 square miles (51,800 ha) of farmland inundated, and livestock destroyed, wrecking the local economy along the coasts of the Bristol Channel and Severn Estuary.

The coast of Devon and the Somerset Levels as far inland as Glastonbury Tor, 14 miles (23 km) from the coast, were also affected. The sea wall at Burnham-on-Sea gave way, and the water flowed over the low-lying levels and moors.

Wikipedia

Of course, you might think, it could never happen again here. You might think it but it would be wishful thinking. I’ll come to that in a moment. The domain name for this blog is “Severnsider” for a reason. I’ve loved the Severn since long before I found myself working in a parish whose boundary ran somewhere in the middle of it. I knew the parish boundary well enough to guide the skipper of the paddle steamer MV Balmoral to the spot where I once slipped the ashes of a retired Severn Pilot called Peter into the swirling waters, to the mournful sound of three long blasts on the ship’s steam whistle.

The river Severn is Britain’s longest river at 220 miles and it can be dangerous; overtopping its banks regularly as floodwaters pour down from the Cambrian Mountains, joined by its many tributaries. The estuary itself, is vulnerable to the South westerly prevailing winds and has the largest volume of water flowing into the sea of any river in England and Wales. When the enormous downstream spring tides meet gale force winds blowing upstream, flooding will follow as night follows day. Not often, but often enough in the past and in the last decades becoming the norm.

As a river it’s been hammered by industrial developments and pollution, warm water from a couple of (now closed) nuclear power stations and more recently by the eutrophication of large stretches by intensive farming – especially in the River Wye which joins the Severn beside the first modern Bridge carrying the M48. I knew the last putcher fisherman on our side of the river and he once told me that salmon were turning up with terrible sores on their flesh. Before he gave up he said he’d only caught three fish in several years.

Nobody in Government seems at all keen to tackle the pollution, but the many thousands of homes on the floodplain are a real political problem when, year after year they’re being inundated for weeks on end by filthy polluted water – and so in these decades of austerity, the combined forces of local, regional and national funding have found £100 million to improve flood defences . Amazon have built a huge warehouse in the middle of one of the affected areas and their astute tax lawyers will have made quite sure that none of their profits are diverted into protecting their own warehouse.

Notwithstanding all these problems the Severn still manages to be a hauntingly beautiful river; visible from miles away as a silver ribbon threading down through small farms and villages with their patchwork fields divided by rhynes and cider orchards along with one of my clutch of country parishes whose church and churchyard were sensibly built on a prominent knoll from which I expect to spend eternity keeping an eye on the river from my high vantage point – immune to winter storms and exalting in the sounds of migrating geese.

Anyway, enough maundering; my point is that the river floods but over the past years £100 million are being expended on keeping our feet dry. Except …….

For the past eight years we’ve kept our campervan in a locked compound barely fifty yards from the sea wall. There were occasions, before the works began, when we kept an anxious eye on the weather forecasts and then after a couple of major floodings up and down stream we joined an automatic warning service which sends out a text message when flooding is expected. We hadn’t expected that yesterday – well outside the normal flooding season – we would receive this text message.

Flood Alert Issued. Severn Estuary at Severn Beach. floodline.uk/112WATSVN1. To hear more information on this Alert, call Floodline 0345 9881188,8

UK Floodline alert.

Once again, the same scenario as 1607. A flood tide meeting stormwater plus a Southwesterly upstream gale heaps up the water (106 cubic metres a second at Apperly on a normal day – that’s a lot of double decker buses!) – and the defences are broached – even after all that money is being spent!

The point of all this is that we’re not preparing for the catastrophic effects of global climate change, we’re limping along after it; parsimoniously spending too little and too late while doing nothing to address the causes. Here we are again as politicians gather in Egypt for COP 27 and make promises they’ve no intention of keeping, while the lobbyists and their tame journalists spend billions persuading us that there’s no cause for alarm – it’s all a long way away and somewhere else. Well it isn’t. It’s right here and right now

But to say a little more about Peter, the Severn pilot. I discovered that during the 2nd World War he would pilot the petrol barges up from Avonmouth to the lock at Purton, just below the old railway bridge. In wartime this was a terribly hazardous journey against fierce tides, numerous underwater shallows and a winding course without the benefit of radar or even lights. Peter – who was a quiet and thoughtful man, would walk the banks of the Severn whenever he had some time off – to memorise the hazards. At his funeral service one of his old friends told me that one day he was prowling the bank in thick fog and as a ship drew near he heard a voice calling – “Is that you Peter?” On  25 October 1960 a couple of petrol barges misjudged the lock at Sharpness and were swept out of control upstream, colliding with one of the piers of the Severn Railway Bridge which, in the ensuing explosion and fire, collapsed. Five crew members died that night. The Severn has claimed many more victims over the previous centuries and we can only hope that she will not take many more lives as a consequence of our wishful thinking about climate change.

Food as resistance – pushing back against the lies that blind.

Home made lentil soup and home baked sourdough with autumn sunshine.

Eating is an agricultural act

Wendell Berry

That memorable quotation from Wendell Berry is the same sentence that inspired Michael Pollan – both of them profoundly important voices within the US farming and food scene. You’ll find posts about both writers here on the Potwell Inn site. For Wendell Berry the point is that eating is part of the agricultural cycle. Crops are sown, cattle are tended and the culmination of that process is eating. Of course there are good and bad ways both of growing and tending, and these form a crucial moral prelude to the decisions we make about the food we eat. Here at the Potwell Inn we’re neither vegetarian nor vegan but we absolutely respect the rights of others to make their own ethical decisions about eating. We all have to accept responsibility for our food choices.

But it’s not that simple to know what’s happened to the foods that supermarkets sell and the advertising media promote at vast cost. Yesterday Madame and I watched every TV news channel we could find in order to get some information about a big demonstration in London. The media were silent; but not the kind of silence that comes from simply not knowing anything. This was the silence of omerta. A tacit vow of silence that evades scrutiny and protects the powerful. And so we turned to a reliable source of news on the internet – Double Down News – where we watched a powerful video by George Monbiot, forensically examining what Vance Packard (more than sixty years ago) called “the hidden persuaders”; building his case on an examination of the intensive salmon farming industry. Monbiot is a vegan, but this was not an attack on eating fish. It was an examination of the hellish conditions surrounding intensive fish farming, the slaughter of seals if they threaten the “crop” and the utterly misleading advertising that leads consumers to believe that this industrial product is somehow the natural expression of historic and wild Scots culture. That’s “natural”; historic”; “wild”; “Scots” and “culture” stripped of their red light warning apostrophes and stapled on to an unforgivable product like a prom dress.

Before lunch today we were sitting and wondering how it is possible to live honest and virtuous lives in a post-truth culture when Wendell Berry’s sentence popped into my mind. I’d love to be able to say that I’d spent hours preparing the bread and the soup, but in reality neither take up that much time. Sourdough bread matures slowly like a narrow boat journey but with a bit of forward planning it always arrives bang on time with no more than 20 minutes of actual work. It takes longer than that to walk to the supermarket and back.

The lentil soup is act two of a very simple meal of gammon poached in cider and vegetables. The (very small piece of) meat, free range Gloucester Old Spot, raised on a local farm and sold by the farmer at the Saturday market, lasts us for at least two meals. The poaching liquor becomes stock for the soup. The herbs and vegetables are either grown on the allotment or bought at the same market and the cider comes from Herefordshire – forty miles up the road. In this way an occasional treat stretches to three meals and four batches of nourishing winter soup. This kind of thoughtful eating pushes back at the tide of disinformation, challenges the lobbyists and PR execs and enables us to live really fulfilled lives, eating cheaply and well and staying healthy without falling under the spell of the industrial behemoth.

At every stage in the production of food there are moral and ethical decisions being made which we know nothing about. At every stage there also are bad and downright greedy decisions being made that lead inexorably to eutrophic “dead” rivers and contaminated soils producing food that may even have carcinogenic properties. The story that’s not being told is about the many, often small pioneering projects that are producing foods which are ethical, organic and taste wildly better than their industrial imitators.

Nick and Kate’s eggs

A couple of days ago I wrote about our friends’ smallholding in the Brecon Beacons. Amongst the sheep and pigs; half a dozen hens spend their days scratching amongst the fallen leaves and dirt. Between them in peak season, in a good week they probably produce three dozen of the best eggs you’ll ever taste. Dark yolked and full of goodness, the eggs are the product of a free-ranging diet of insects, grubs windfall apples and worms with a feed of layers mash at night. These are eggs you can poach without being ashamed. The yolks sit up proud in self contained whites. What if the price of this kind of food to us, the eaters of it, is that we must confine ourselves to eating less of it? Well, why not?

Of course even finding such food can be a slow business, but the farmer whose meat we finally settled on is someone we now know and trust. The dairy farmer whose milk we buy sells better tasting milk and is able to run his herd profitably by selling direct to consumers. The flour we bake with is organic and comes from UK farmers – some of them no further than a short drive away. Again we buy direct from the producers; and of course our vegetables are mainly grown by us on the allotment.

So it turns out that growing, harvesting, shopping, cooking and eating really can be an act of resistance – pushing back hard against the lies that blind us to the realities of intensive industrial food production. Just as a thought exercise, imagine asking the manager of the local Sainsbury’s supermarket where his eggs come from? How much dairy farmers are paid for their milk? What exactly Red Tractor standards represent? I imagine the reaction would be one of bewilderment followed by the dark suspicion that you, as a dangerous radical; possibly hippy communist agitator would very likely be gluing your hand to a till, or throwing tomato ketchup at the security guard in the next couple of minutes.

So if you can’t get answers to these perfectly reasonable questions, don’t buy the product. Nothing is more likely to change attitudes than mindful shopping. You’d think, wouldn’t you, that selling milk from a vending machine at 20% above supermarket prices – next door – to a supermarket would be a sure fire failure. But it’s not. I regularly have to queue behind several other economically illiterate people to fill my bottles. Resistance – it seems – is anything but futile because every BS resistant customer represents a tiny but significant dent in the profits.

A simple meal with love is better than a feast where there is hatred.

Proverbs 15:17 Contemporary English Version.

Of course you might be thinking to yourself “how on earth would I find the time to do all this searching and growing? – and in any case I can’t cook !” There’s no denying that’s a tremendous problem for all too many people but I might respectfully suggest that a long and penetrating reflection on the kind of life we live; on work-life balance and whether cooking for and eating with people you love isn’t more deeply fulfilling than a solitary microwave meal in front of the idiot’s lantern – might signal time for a whole change of lifestyle. Madame and I have been hard-up all our lives and yet we’ve had tremendously fulfilling times. We somehow understood that living as simply as possible freed us from the tyranny of lies. Greed and dissatisfaction are symptoms of an autoimmune disease of the soul for which the only cure is withdrawal from the steroid fuelled world of unfulfillable aspiration. Our eyes are all too often fixed on the destructive and false goal of freedom to do as we please, whereas true freedom is not so much freedom from want – we all deserve to have our basic needs met – but freedom from endless wanting. And if such a philosophy drives a few PR operatives out of business that’s a price I’m more than happy for them to pay!

Rewilding the pavement

North Somerset is a very wildlife rich county. We can easily walk to half a dozen outstandingly diverse habitats which – because we have both a river and a canal – reach like green fingers to the centre of the city. Otters are often seen within a quarter of a mile of our flat, and in summer we can lean over the riverside and see Dace swimming in the shallows. It’s a joy. The tourist guide writers love to swoon over the honey coloured stone at sunset and we not only have parks but also a botanical garden, riverside walks and a cycle path linking us with Bristol and into the National Network that could take you to London on a bike or in a kayak. I don’t want to oversell the beauties because we’re already stuffed with tourists but living in a beautiful city with a local authority which has declared the environmental emergency feels like a step in the right direction.

This year – finally – the City Council took the brave decision to stop spraying our streets and pavements with Glyphosate. The policy seems to have met with less resistance than the clean air zone – or CAZ -which has provoked venomous opposition from those who think parking their SUV’s outside on the pavement next to their favourite shop is some kind of human right. The pollution here has not only been persistent, it’s been illegal and the Council have struggled to impose a policy that would actually work. Exempting all private cars including the Range Rovers and Discoveries was a sop to the most vocal opponents but the policy is working – although much more slowly than it might have done. The providential closure of a major HGV route through the centre of Bath during bridge repairs may have had a lot to do with the results so far.

The routine spraying of pavements was a different issue. Through traffic has been a problem for more than fifty years, but the removal of any plants from the pavements seems to be a hangover from another age; an age in which weeds were treated as an enemy that needed to be vanquished every year – as if the pavements were a war zone. The consequences of weeds were never clearly specified but unknown horrors such as pensioners tripping over were gravely hinted at. In truth, generations of municipal grounds people (I was one of them) were raised within the ancient hostilities and killing weeds gave a kind of atavistic pleasure.

So this is the first year of the new policy and we’re just beginning to see the results. Truth to tell, Glyphosate is a rubbish weedkiller in any case because more and more so-called weeds are developing resistance to it. The plants just died back and played possum for a month or two and then sprang into new life as if nothing had happened. The consequences for the rest of us were less benign, and rivers and their associated water tables have been saturated with poison which has been finding its way into our water supplies and into us. Bayer/Monsanto will claim it’s all a myth but then – they would, wouldn’t they?

The photos at the top could not have been taken on the same day and month in any year within the last decades because by now they would have gone. So it’s a complete joy to report all of these modest beauties growing within fifteen paces of our front door. There are many more, but the street is lined with Mexican Fleabane – that’s the pretty daisy looking plant. Then there’s Canadian Fleabane growing rapidly, Ivy Leaved Toadflax, Broad Leaved Plantain, Cat’s Ear, Smooth Sows’ Ear, Prickly Sows’ Ear, Dandelion, Wall Lettuce, Nipplewort, and Pineapple Weed. There’s Annual Meadow Grass and Wall Barley. At the back there’s Herb Robert, Great Lettuce and many other species. I suppose it was a matter of mindset rather than moral deficiency that kept us killing them off every year – culture eats strategy for breakfast after all and in time, I hope, more and more people will come to appreciate these miniature nature reserves on our doorsteps – after all it’s faintly miraculous that anything can survive in this hot, dry, waterless and polluted hostile environment. It’s a tribute to the persistence and adaptability of nature that these ancient residents and relative newcomers can emerge, seemingly from nowhere, miles from their natural habitats in fields and hedgerows.

Not entirely on the level!

These are the last two beds on the allotment to be prepped ready for planting up and I took the photo from this angle to show how – when people ask if we use raised beds – we have to say – “It depends which end you’re at”. The allotment is on a moderate slope and so over the years we’ve built up the soil at the southern end of each bed to terrace it. I’ve never done a calculation but at a guess we’ve used perhaps 10 cubic metres of cast off potting compost, home made compost and manure, mixed with bought-in topsoil. I hate to think how much it’s cost, but soil is precious and we never throw anything away.

The plan is to move the container potatoes on to the end plot, covered with a hoop cloche, and then tip them out to harvest them in a few weeks, leaving the soil behind and finally raising the soil level at the end. The weight of added earth had been distorting the retaining planks, and so we’ve also had to replace the short wooden pegs with sturdy posts to keep the earth in place. I was watering some new plants the other day and I was shocked to see how much topsoil was being washed away down a small gap in the planks. I think we’ll just about manage to move the potatoes in the green sacks, but although they’ve held up for five seasons, the stitching is getting rotten and so we’ve moved over to some chunky purpose built 35L buckets with handles. The limitations of space which I wrote about recently when I was thinking about rotations, means that one alternative is to grow potatoes, tomatoes etc; and carrots too in containers of fresh soil every year – keeping them under nets and therefore disease and pest free.

It was a hard day’s work, removing all the purple sprouting broccoli and reducing the stalks to shreds with a hand axe. The resulting foot of composting material we mixed with some straw and a couple of handfuls of fish, blood and bone fertilizer and gave it a good wet. Relying on the rain to keep the heap at the right level of moisture is hopeless, so we keep it covered and water it when necessary.

All this work is about getting ready to move the tender veg into the plots after the last frost, to make room for planting the tomatoes, peppers, aubergines, chillies, a melon and some and basil inside the polytunnel. The tunnel has been a blast, and we’ve feasted on early salad crops but sadly some will have to be removed before they’re quite ready. Next year we’ll have a lot more experience and we’ll get things in at more appropriate times.

In the back of our minds today was a palace coup by a divided local Lib Dem council who were elected on a radical plan to cut traffic and emissions but who have just been forced to withdraw planning permission for some ‘executive’ houses on a nature reserve in a unique habitat, and who have voted the leader out because they feared her radical commitment to the manifesto might endanger their chances of re-election. She made a brilliant speech yesterday when this all came out but for many of us this reverse has compromised their chances of keeping power altogether. The thought of having to ask the voters to leave their Range Rovers in the garage was too much for them to contemplate – not least because they seem to be planning to allow 48 tonne lorries through the centre of Bath in order to get government funds to mend the Cleveland Bridge. Our political system is completely broken, and once radical parties are squabbling over some mythical ‘centre ground’ in the forlorn hope that something will turn up to save us from ourselves. That’s called magical thinking. The Darwinian solution to this challenge is for the human race to drown in our own effluent and let the earth and its surviving life forms start all over again. The other solutions all involve doing without some stuff we don’t really need. I could go on but I won’t. Two things not on the level at once is enough!

What goes around ….

River Avon at Widcombe

The river level had fallen slightly today after the weekend storms but it still looked dangerous this morning as we walked past. Falling in, in these conditions, is not a safe option, and this stretch of the Avon has taken more than a dozen lives in the last ten years. That said, we did see a couple of sturdy paddle boarders making very slow progress against the flow. The pleasure boats have all stopped, due to the renewed lockdown, but I wouldn’t even think about taking our inflatable kayak out in conditions more suitable for white water specialists.

It’s a salutary experience to watch the raw power of nature. Our regular riverside walk takes us under the bridge that appears in the video, beneath which the flood levels over the past century have been carved into the plinth. Most of them are well above our heads! This last year, flood prevention work has continued down this length of the river, and a new terraced water storage area has been created while the canalised banks have been raised even further; but canalisation, while protecting the centre of town, still moves the problem downstream. There are computerised side sluices which were in use yesterday, but they occasionally jam open, causing havoc and draining the waterway in the locked section upstream. It’s only when you see a whole tree passing down the river faster than you can walk, that you can judge the awesome strength of the flow – and that’s a chastening thought when you think about the environmental dangers we’re courting at the moment.

Rachel Carson’s book “Silent Spring” was published 50 years ago. I can remember any number of warning signs over the years; acid rain, holes in the ozone layer, typhoons more severe than ever before and the melting of the Arctic ice. It’s been happening for so long we’ve got almost cosy with the idea – “what catastrophe?”, we wonder, when the changes are so slow we can accommodate them easily in our minds. “Climate change?”we say – “it’s like old age creeping up; these are just twinges in the knees, there’s plenty of time to sort things out. So here’s the thing. When nature gets upset or disturbed it’s not like waking a small bear, it’s like opening a pandora’s box of events so unmanageable, so unpredictable and so indiscriminate; that none of them can be summarily dealt with. When catastrophic events that are only predicted to occur once a century turn up three at a time in consecutive years then something’s up – rather like binge drinking for years, when your liver won’t give you the luxury of a gap between “not yet” and “too late”.

Curiously enough – or maybe fortuitously enough – there was another lesson to be learned from the river today. I’ve been saying for months to Madame that I can smell the detergent as we get with 200 yards of Pulteney Weir. Today you could see it as well. This thick layer of grey foam had caught my eye as a useful visual aid for showing the speed of the flow, earlier in our walk. Here, in the backwash next to the flood relief sluice, there was a floating layer of foam a foot deep. Less than a mile upstream we’ve seen people wild swimming below Grosvenor bridge. Here’s why that might be a dangerous idea, because quite aside from the danger of getting into trouble with underwater obstacles – the kind that killed a school friend when I was twelve – this stuff, the detergent, doesn’t make its own way into the river via a separate pipe marked “not too bad”. It comes via the overflows from the sewage works dotted along the banks. When torrential rain comes – as it does ever more frequently these days – the usual legal niceties controlling the treatment works are automatically suspended and raw sewage flows out straight into the river. The detergent foam may be an indicator; it may be a menace in its own right – rich, as it is, with phosphates; but even then it’s not as immediately dangerous as the other chemical, bacterial and viral contaminants that we’ve drained into it from our kitchens and bathrooms.

I mentioned a similar problem in a newspaper column years ago and was unceremoniously chucked out of a fly fishing club for bringing its waters into disrepute. Hi guys – still fishing in your own shit?

So there it is – you can’t escape the worries even during a quiet walk up the river. On the bright side they’ve just installed the first new bridge across the river for 100 years, for walkers and cyclists only which, predictably, has brought out the trolls who call it ‘the bridge that goes from nowhere to nowhere’. In fact it creates a safe route from the South to the North side of the city without using the Mad Max roundabouts along the main car route. Here are a couple of photos: –

The crane that lifted the bridge into place was a 170 ton crawler crane that arrived on over twenty low loaders to be assembled on site. It was awesome – the biggest crane I’ve ever seen; and yet when I was admiring it the security guard said “Oh that’s only a small one – the one at the Hinkley Point Power Station is twice as big”. Unsurprisingly the crane attracted a crowd of admiring men (and their less admiring partners). What is it about hyper-powerful machinery that gets us so excited? On the other had if it came to a tug of war between the crawler crane and the river in full spate I reckon the river would win without even breaking a sweat.

For all the pleasure and education that natural history television has brought us I often wonder whether it has falsely domesticated our sense of the wild. So often we read stories of people getting attacked when they climb over security fences to get closer to the animals in zoos and wildlife parks and it may be that a contributory factor (apart from being an idiot) is the sense that the wild is there for our entertainment. Almost all our attempts to ‘tame’ nature are hubristic. I mentioned Hinkley Point earlier and thought Chernobyl even as I typed it. The last iteration of the flood prevention scheme here broke down, they say, due to a software error, and dozens of residential boats were sunk, leaving many people homeless. Here’s a bigger video of the river at Pulteney Weir today:-

Be honest – would you buy this apple?

We have a friend – Harry -who’s a retired orthopaedic surgeon; and an all round good guy. On his 90th birthday he gave a truly witty after dinner speech in which he tried to account for his long life and 60 years of happy marriage by listing the virtues that he thought might have contributed. The virtue I remember most clearly was thrift, which he illustrated by telling a story about apples. Harry has a large garden and orchard and he said that he had the utmost difficulty in leaving windfalls on the ground – it just seemed wrong to waste them, he said – and the consequence, he noted, was ” …. of course you never eat a decent apple!”

  • canny.
  • careful.
  • meticulous.
  • prudent.
  • stingy.
  • thrifty.
  • abstemious.
  • spartan.

I don’t know about you, but it seems to me that all these synonyms have a faintly negative air about them – but I know exactly what Harry meant. We’ve got a load of really nice, almost perfect, Lord Lambourne apples stored in the meter cupboard; but those aren’t the ones we’re eating because we like to finish up the windfalls and blemished ones first. And so every morning when I prepare our muesli I cut the bad bits out of yesterday’s windfalls and grate the rest – they still taste just as good and, pound for pound, they contain exactly as many nutrients as their smooth cheeked cousins in the cupboard. The point. though, is that we couldn’t even give them away. When we go (infrequently) to the fruit and veg stall in a supermarket, we see nothing but perfect examples of each variety, flying off the shelves complete with all the residue of the repeated sprays that have bestowed their cosmetic perfection on them. “Another slice of organophosphate and neonicotinoid pie?” is the one question we’re most unlikely to ask at the dinner table.

But simply by working the allotment our worldview has changed. Because we’ve planted and nurtured our own vegetables; tended and watered them through drought, storm and snowfall; pruned, fed and picked the fruits we’re a lot less inclined to discard them because they don’t look like the ones in the supermarket (or especially the seed catalogue). Yesterday I was writing about how pleased we were to have a small crop of Florence fennel and I forgot to take a picture to share – so here it is – and, as you can easily see, although I extolled the flavour and texture yesterday, it’s hardly a textbook example of the genre; on the very edge of bolting and not about to win any prizes at any flower and produce show I’ve ever been to. When you grow your own veg, you’ve got to learn to love them in rather the way you love your children – seeing nothing but sheer beauty and giftedness in them in spite of all the evidence to the contrary!

There’s an old saying that says “everyone should eat their peck of dirt”. and equally if you’ve never seen a slug or an earwig on your plate you’re probably part of the reason that our rivers are so heavily polluted by runoff from farms. It wasn’t for nothing that the Edwardian gardeners at the Lost Gardens of Heligan called their stirrup pump sprayer the widowmaker.

Isn’t it a supreme irony that we’re so scared of insects or a bit of dirt, or especially the idea of composting toilets and using urine as a fertilizer; while we are quite prepared to tolerate some of the most dangerous nerve-gas derived chemicals ever invented, all over our lettuce or fruit. How on earth did that happen? Well I guess it’s because we can’t see it, and a lot of money has been spent on persuading us it’s perfectly safe.

Allotmenteering teaches so much more than a few horticultural tricks. It teaches some of those virtues that Harry was praising on his 90th birthday. It teaches us to value diversity, stop dreaming about the perfect and above all to stop wasting the good things that the earth has given us. And, how could we leave this one out? – allotmenteering gives us a sense of awe and gratitude that’s so easily lost in this era of mendacity and stupidity. That’ll do for us.

It was the human equivalent of a gannetry; stinking, filthy, violent and overwhelmingly noisy. 

IMG_20200109_122242IMG_20200109_123129A couple of days of intensive grandparenting have kept us pretty busy at the Potwell Inn, and yesterday we bussed over to Bristol to look after the two youngest during the day while their mum and dad were at an event.  We’d planned taking them to the Museum and Art Gallery – always a haven for wet days and access time for glum looking parents, but due to a mix-up with the buses into the city centre we spent most of our time on the bus. The museum turned out to be closed on Mondays anyway but – and this is the important point – the children were wonderfully philosophical and loved the buses which, I suspect, they don’t get to use much. We use them whenever we can because it keeps the car off the road and it’s free. This is no mean achievement  for the government, a social policy that older people love, use all the time, and must surely be good for the environment. It makes no distinction between the deserving and the undeserving poor (a truly malignant calculus) and I can’t understand why politicians don’t stop waffling on with endless pious hopes about public transport and support it with hard cash. People will flock to it if it’s cheap (and clean), but when a single bus fare from Bath to Bristol in peak time costs £5 there’s very little incentive to leave the car behind. The poorest, of course, have no choice.

Yesterday we walked up to the museum through the centre of town and there’s no denying it was a miserable experience. Quality of life in Bristol has deteriorated on almost any measure you could name. The  walk uphill past the main hospital was so polluted by noise and car fumes we just stopped talking altogether and I could feel my chest tightening.  I’m a bit deaf these days, and such was the intensity and volume of the roar being bounced between the concrete buildings I had no idea where it was coming from. It was the human equivalent of a gannetry; stinking, filthy, violent and overwhelmingly noisy. Buildings were covered in graffiti – the old Bank of England building near Bristol Bridge was a particularly poignant example, and there were beggars everywhere.  Nobody, it seems, wants to help them find jobs or homes.

Meanwhile, the great British public, unable to raise ourselves above apathy in relation to the climate emergency have stripped the shelves in Sainsbury’s so that not a single toilet roll was on sale this morning. Our son saw someone in the street dressed in what looked like a hazmat suit carrying a load of them today. When I first heard him tell it I thought it must be one of those lovely stunts that the Natural Theatre Company used to get up to with Brian Popay.  It’s not our sanity as much as our sense of priorities I worry about. I’ve no doubt that blame will soon be assigned to the hapless people who brought coronavirus here and as soon as we know who to hate we’ll all be happy again, but it does seem odd that we have learned to tolerate public squalour and the devastation of the environment but are galvanised by fear of a virus. I don’t know how many children and old people will die of asthma related disease aggravated by traffic pollution in a so-called ‘normal’ year but as sure as hell it isn’t zero.  Neither do I know how many people will die from neglect and cold, even from starvation; but that won’t be zero either.

I suspect that the trick is to find a suitably disposable scapegoat and to pin the blame on them but – in a phrase I overuse – ‘we have seen the enemy, it is us’   And so for example the enemy could be the cow and the only way out is – apparently – more mass produced junk food but without any meat in it.  It seems we’re willing to contemplate eating processed seaweed and intensively grown soya until we turn green – anything except ending our dependence on burning fossil fuels. We love our cars so much we’d rather choke to death than catch a bus.

Is it just me being an old fogey?  Younger people seem to manage the noisy canyons by wearing headphones and walking holding their mobiles.  I suppose it’s a kind of insulation against the reality of the streets.  Am I hopelessly out of touch with the realities of life? am I just another  middle class, old white man too fastidious to want to deal with the way we do things round here? It’s always possible – I know enough about myself to know that I don’t know anything much about me, my fears and obsessions. But just sometimes we have to make the choice between more of the same and something much harder that demands commitment, resources and a lot of courage.

The rewards of walking hand in hand with my grandchildren and playing riotous games with a home made peashooter made out of a cardboard roll – well they take some beating, but the thought that they will never hear a nightingale or a nightjar, or see a wild hare in a field or be safe to play away from home is really scary. The thought that their lives will become precarious and stripped of the pleasures of eating together by food insecurity and industrial gloop; that their inner lives will be curated entirely by Google and Apple and shaped by the interests of the corporations – that’s a hellish vision.

 

There’s something happening here!

Last summer we made our first trip to Cumbria, driving from East to West across the country, very roughly following the route of the Coast to Coast Path. We stayed for a week in Ravenseat in a cottage that was actually on the path and then we moved on West, picking up on the A5086 at Cockermouth, through Frizington, Cleaton Moor, Egremont, Calder Bridge, Gosforth and finally Ravenglass, within sight of Seascale nuclear reprocessing plant. Although we’d never been to the area before, somehow the names of these villages seemed familiar and after a while I remembered why.  They were, or rather had been, mining villages.  Both coal and iron were mined there – the perfect combination for driving the industrial revolution. But not any more. It was quite depressing, in truth; there was a terrible air of dereliction hanging over the villages.  They looked sad, run down and depressed. There were many posters demanding brexit, St George flags – big ones – mounted on aluminium flagpoles at no little expense. Even a large sign outside Seascale announcing that we were on the “Energy Coast” seemed more ironic than triumphant.

If ever there was a living example of the coming crisis it was here, and I haven’t been able to shake it out of my mind since the summer. The results of the general election have only brought it back more strongly because this is where the paradoxes that caused the collapse of our present economics  are obvious to anyone who comes. Just as William Cobbett witnessed in his (1822 – 1826) Rural Rides –

The stack-yards down this valley are beautiful to behold. They contain from five to fifteen banging wheat-ricks, besides barley-ricks and hay-ricks, and also besides the contents of the barns, many of which exceed a hundred, some two hundred, and I saw one at Pewsey another at Fittleton, each of which exceeded two hundred and fifty feet in length. At a farm which, in the old maps; is called Chissenbury Priory, I think I counted twenty-seven ricks of one sort and another, and sixteen or eighteen of them wheat-ricks. I could not conveniently get to the yard without longer delay than I wished to make; but I could not be much out in my counting. A very fine sight this was, and it could not meet the eye without making one look round (and in vain) to see the people who were to eat all this food ; and without making one reflect on the horrible, the unnatural, the base and infamous state in which we must be, when projects are on foot, and are openly avowed, for transporting those who raise this food, because they want to eat enough of it to keep them alive; and when no project is on foot for transporting the idlers who live in luxury upon this same food; when no project is on foot for transporting pensioners, parsons, or dead-weight people!

The ‘pensioners’ that Cobbett mentions, by the way, are not senior citizens but recipients of government generosity for indefinable contributions to their continuance in power.

I was reading today that there is a proposal for a new deep mine in Whitehaven producing 2.5 million tonnes of coking coal a year and offering 500 new jobs.  The proposal was supported by Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat politicians in the face of strong criticism from environmental groups.

So there’s the paradox. How can we deny these post industrial areas of high poverty the jobs that could put them back on their feet? “The coal is in the ground, why not take it out and sell it?” they say.  Are you weeping and gnashing your teeth yet? Are there no other less destructive occupations than releasing carbon into the atmosphere that could be encouraged? The challenge before us is to change a whole culture, and it’s no use coming up with endless strategies because – as any business consultant will tell you for a large fee – culture eats strategy for breakfast!  The culture in question has centuries of entrenchment under its belt – so much so that it’s become commonsensical to regard the earth’s resources as if they were created entirely for the enrichment of humans,  and without any value intrinsic to itself. To suggest that we might have to treat the earth as a partner smacks of tree hugging madness.

For years the evidence has piled up, and no-one took much notice, but now it’s the experience we’re getting. The rainwater that floods into valley towns and flood plains, ruining land and houses is not a theory.  The forest fires aren’t theories and the extreme weather isn’t a theory either. It’s not an academic exercise to encounter the diminishment of the soil and the declining yields that can only be propped up by more and more of the very chemicals that are causing the problem.  Massive increases in stress and diet related diseases aren’t theoretical and asthma resulting from atmospheric pollution isn’t a figment of some doom-monger’s imagination, neither is the mass extinction of insects, and it breaks my heart to see mainstream politicians waving through policies that will make things worse for the sake of a few votes in a run-down area. They should hang their heads in shame.

Meanwhile the very same interests who have conceived, promoted and benefited from the violation and destruction of the earth have taken complete control by driving their juggernaut through the ranks of the opposition because the opposition had no plans for anything except managing the destruction a little more ‘fairly’. There was no teaching, no vision, no genuine conversation with these depressed areas, just the odd hospital and road thrown their way in the hope it would be enough to stave off change. Our politics has shown itself to be no longer fit for purpose. Workington men and women, and millions of other disillusioned people voted from despair because no-one ever listened, nothing ever happened and no-one was offering a coherent picture of a way forward, the only show in town was a regression to the imaginary glory days. I can’t get that line of mining towns out of my head.  I took a school trip down Big Pit once, and I got chatting to a retired mine electrician at the pithead.  “you must miss it” – I said.  “Miss it?” he snorted – “I hated every bloody minute of it!”

Driving across Yorkshire to Cumbria we passed some of the prettiest and some of the most derelict areas in the UK. It’s collapsing, the whole political and economic structure is falling apart and the earth on which we depend utterly is screaming its distress at us. The threads of a new culture are there.  They lack all sorts of detail, but I think we now understand that our relationship with the earth has to be understood as a spiritual “I -Thou” relationship and not the “I- it” relationship of modernism.  I think we understand that people really matter, and that strong human community is as essential to us as air and water. I think we understand too that our politicians need to stop speaking and start listening more.  I’m not the only person who gets exasperated by being told what I believe by a person who’s never spoken to me. And I think that we understand that the fruits of the earth and of our labours must be more equitably shared.  It would be a crime of the highest order to export the crisis to the poorest people on earth in order to preserve our wasteful way of life. And finally we have to change ‘the way we do things round here’ – the way we grow and harvest, the way we eat and the way we enjoy our leisure. The people of Whitehaven deserve better – just not that kind of better.

So I’ll finish with some words from Roger Gottlieb from an essay entitled “Spiritual deep ecology and the Left: an attempt at reconciliation”  – I found it in the first edition of “This Sacred Earth” and I’m quoting it because I think we need to talk.

 

A fruitful exchange between deep ecology and the left, however, requires that adherents of both perspectives suspend  some entrenched prejudices. Leftists need to open themselves to the possibility that a spiritually oriented perspective might actually have something to teach them: in this case, something about the ultimate source of value in our lives and about limitations in our conventional sense of self. Deep ecologists, on the other hand, would do well to suspend their ahistorical arrogance about their own wisdom, their pretensions to being above or beyond political struggles and their too facile dismissal of left movements as unremitting agents of the exploitation of nature.

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Although committed to ending unjust systems and ending oppression, leftist or progressive political movements have often reproduced, rather than opposed, the conventional ego.  Classic liberalism emphasised personal rights, enshrined individual economic activity at the heart of its system, and believed the central purpose of society was to protect and further ownership and consumption.  Surely this will not help us face the environmental crisis.

Sadly, more “radical” political movements of the West – despite their emphasis on community, class or racial experience, and their attempt to generate an ethic of collective solidarity and struggle – have also too often presupposed an individualistic consumerist ego. The practical politics of the left have frequently aimed to provide more things, money, and prestige. They have too often represented the interests of one segment of the oppressed while claiming to represent all, and they have repeatedly failed to challenge the individualist premise that a higher standard of living will make for greater happiness. It has been a rare progressive party that called for less, not more, consumption – at least until the Green Parties of Europe came into being; and there has been little assertion that human fulfillment may be directly opposed to high -consumption lifestyles.”

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